Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox, Devin Aromashodu, Rashied Davis, Roy Williams, Dane Sanzenbacher, Sam Hurd. This is the list of receivers that Jerry Angelo has provided Jay Cutler since Jay came to the team via trade in 2009. The scariest thing about this list might be that there isn't a single quality number two receiver on it, let alone any semblance of a reliable number one option. Consider for a moment this hypothetical: if NFL teams could trade complete receiving corps amongst themselves, is there any team in the NFL that would ever consider the Bears receivers an upgrade at the position group? Doubtful. To take it a step further, if teams could trade any receiver on their roster to upgrade at the number two wide receiver position, is there a team that would take any of the Bears receivers? Dubious. I will spare us all the embarrassment of going through the number one receiver hypothetical, but the point is that the Bears lack raw talent at the position, and have suffered from this particular void for quite a while.
To a certain extent, this positional talent vacuum has been a product of organizational design. When Jerry Angelo acquired Jay Cutler via trade, the most salient insight he provided was something regarding the way the organization conceptualized the relationship between quarterback and receiver:
"Our assumption is that it starts with the quarterback, and not the wide receivers. All you have to do is look north and see what Favre did with his receivers in Green Bay. I don't care who you gave Favre because they always looked good." (Note: quote is originally from an interview with Matt Bowen of the National Football Post, but the story is no longer available online).
No one would argue against the notion that in the modern NFL, it is entirely proper to prioritize the quarterback position over any receiver. However, that's not what Jerry Angelo chose to say. He spoke of a quarterback manufacturing solid receiving threats under any circumstances. Even if the names and talents of wide receivers up in Green Bay during the Favre era don't mean much to Angelo, the prevailing proverbial wisdom says you can't make something out of nothing. Is this being too harsh on the Bears receivers? All you need to do is take a look at the top of the article and read that list over one more time. Despite the fact that Earl Bennett is being touted as a difference maker since his return to the lineup, not a single player on that list is qualified to be the focal point of an NFL passing game. On a list that reads like a roll call for the Island of Misfit Toys, each player has at least one tragic flaw that will always prevent them from being a true go-to option.
Devin Hester will never have a feel for zone coverage. Johnny Knox will never be able to effectively fight for balls in tight coverage. Roy Williams will never become more willing to extend his body to make catches over the middle or against safety help on the edges of the field. Dane Sanzenbacher will never get bigger, taller or faster, even if he starts to catch the ball more consistently. Earl Bennett will never have the speed to beat top cornerbacks.
To be clear, this exercise isn't meant to disparage any of these men, who are each known (perhaps with the exceptions of Aromashodu and Williams) as hard-working professionals dedicated to maximizing their talents and production in the NFL. None of these players were drafted or acquired by the Bears with the idea they would dictate defensive coverage schemes or take an NFL secondary by storm on a weekly basis. Each has been paid and utilized by the Bears as a fungible receiving talent meant to blend in, rather than stand out. They have generally fulfilled those low expectations, respectively.
No, this exercise is actually designed to point out the flawed process under which the receiving corps has been constructed year after year. Revisiting Jerry Angelo's quote on his philosophy highlights the dangerous part of this whole scenario, which is that although Angelo has certainly not been correct in his approach, he has avoided being completely wrong. Cutler's recent success, coupled with the fact the Bears hosted last season's NFC Championship game, might be enough for Angelo to calcify his organizational philosophy. Cutler has been able to make this mishmash of under-qualified receivers work well enough for the team to succeed, so Angelo can continue on his merry way and avoid taking a risk on a top talent at wide receiver. The true tragedy is that Cutler's talents cannot be maximized under the significant weight of the status quo imposed by his GM.
Jay is at his best on the move outside of the pocket, improvising and waiting to make pick and stick throws to receivers with even the slightest bit of separation. Without a top wide out, that separation is never guaranteed and often absent all together. Somehow, Cutler has still managed to make it all work just well enough. In these recent weeks, we've seen the erosion of systematic strictures in the Martz offense. No longer is Jay forced to mechanically retreat in five and seven step drops and throw to a spot that his receivers won't reach on time. The pocket is moving more often, and Cutler is being encouraged to attack the edges of the field and make decisions with his arm as much as with his head. There can be no denying that the franchise quarterback has taken ownership of the offense this season, and in a strange way he has risen to the challenge issued by Angelo.
But therein lies the rub: the challenge itself has been flawed all along. The fact that Cutler has managed to raise his level of play and make something out of nothing doesn't validate Angelo's approach to constructing the offense. The GM's prized acquisition has done all that has been asked of him in his third season with the Bears, making serious improvements in his gameday decision-making by acknowledging when not to trust his flawed receivers on tight throws and anticipatory reads. He has become better in games by conforming his talents to the limitations of his receiver corps, but just think if Angelo has asked something slightly different of Cutler from the beginning. If at any time the Bears had acquired a big time receiving threat, the onus would have been on Cutler not to make bad into mediocre, but to make good into great.
In the current offensive equation, sub-optimal receiving talent is the limiting factor holding Cutler back from reaching his full potential. He can still become a better quarterback, but it's no longer up to him. There isn't anything more you could ask Cutler to do given what he has to work with. The only person who can make him better now is Jerry Angelo, who has the power to remove the glass ceiling his quarterback is currently pressed against. It's time to rethink the organizational philosophy and equip Jay Cutler with weapons that will truly allow him to maximize his immense talent. But the Bears GM doesn't have to take my word for it, he can look back on comments made by his star quarterback shortly after joining the Bears in April of 2009:
"I don't think quarterbacks make receivers, and I don't think receivers make the quarterback,'' Cutler said. "It's a joint mesh there, we've got to both be on the same page. I've got to deliver the ball and they've got to be in the right place. I can't do it without them, and they can't do it without me."
Well, there it is in a nutshell. I guess Jay can see the glass ceiling too. The only question that remains is this: does Angelo even know it is there?